This week I was elected onto the Board of Trustees of the League against Cruel Sports. I was asked a few months ago whether I’d be interested in putting my name forward, and of course I was. I’d like to take a moment to explain why.
There’s a well-known story that goes something like this. A man is walking along a beach. He notices with sadness that there are tens of thousands of starfish stranded along the tideline. He walks on and comes across a woman who is picking up the starfish and putting them gently back in the sea. He can sympathise with what she’s doing but can’t help saying to her, “There are literally thousands of starfish along this beach, you’re not going to make a difference putting just a few back.” The woman continues putting the starfish back in the water. “It may not make a difference to all the starfish on the beach,” she says, “but the ones I’ve put back – it makes a difference to them.”
I’ve been a birder (the term we self-professed fanatics like to use to separate us from the more casual part-time ‘birdwatcher’) for as long as I can remember. Since I saw a Yellowhammer on the way to school one day in fact. My brother (my hero – another fact) and I birded constantly. He went to live in Japan and then South/Republic of Korea, fighting wetland reclamation and trying to tell the world about the decline of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, I joined an airline so that I could go birding around the world for free (‘ensure safety of the passengers and serve tea and coffee’ as they put it, but I knew why I was there).
I ‘birded for free’ for twenty years. All around the world. I also helped Nial sometimes, I campaigned for conservation when I could, I played a small role in countering the lies about poultry flu (H5N1) and the threats to culling migratory waterfowl, got into arguments with American birders about the role hunters play in conservation (or the role they play in farming wildfowl for target practice as I prefer to think of it), took down mist nets in forests, and blogged endlessly.
I also birded endlessly. Bought books, hired cars, kept lists, went out of my way to see new birds, get better photographs of ones I’d seen before. All great fun, mostly hedonistic, occasionally altruistic, but definitely fun.
In the meantime I met Jo, my partner, muse, and inspiration. She’d been a committed veggie since her teens. We moved in together and she winced every time I went out birding all day then came home with a pre-cooked chicken from the supermarket for supper. She winced a lot, in other words. We talked. A lot. My love of birds, birding, and why I didn’t see a chicken as a bird (the world’s most abundant bird thanks to the industrialisation of the once wild Red Junglefowl)) came up fairly regularly.
One evening I was reading Juliet Gelattley’s ‘The Silent Ark’ in a hotel in India. I looked down at the Chicken Korma I’d ordered, thought about the fragile bones, the meat of what was clearly an under-fed and likely poorly-treated chicken, the meat industry and the suffering it caused and – I suppose in a moment of epiphany – realised that here I was a birder eating a bird. I pushed the dish aside. That was just over a decade ago, and I’ve never eaten meat since. No, I’m not ‘saving’ all the world’s animals, but I’m not walking them up the steps to the abattoir either.
The more I thought about things the more I realised that I wasn’t really a birder, I was more of a ‘birdser’. I was into birds in a big (read ‘obsessional’) way, but birds in general terms. A bit like not seeing the wood for the trees, I was missing the individual bird amongst the flock. Yes, an individual bird could thrill, excite, or frustrate me. Yes of course seeing some individual birds will live long in the memory (I may need to write my own mobile phone number down to be able to remember it, but ask me to describe the incredible views I had of a Blue-winged Pitta I twitched in Singapore’s Botanic Gardens a decade ago and I could keep talking all night), but on the whole the vast majority have slid by in a long line of sightings, recordings, all day drives, sunrises and sunsets…
That could just be the result of a fortunately rather full life. No-one remembers everything. I’ve seen and done a lot (courtesy of the most ridiculously high carbon footprint of any ‘conservationist’ outside of the BBC Natural History Unit). But I don’t think so. I’m not beating myself up about it, we live and learn after all, but I lost sight of the individual bird. Particularly if that individual wasn’t rare or ‘new’.
Here’s an example. I’ve been campaigning against the slaughter of migrant birds in Malta for some years now. Members of the FKNK, the self-serving Maltese gun lobby, read my blog and occasionally leave poorly thought-out comments. One of their arguments does strike a (minor) chord though: you in the UK shoot birds, the argument goes, so why not have a go at your hunters instead of pointing your finger at ours. It’s easy enough to *ahem* shoot their arguments down: there are no borders in conservation, what Maltese poachers do is illegal under EU law, it’s indiscriminate, they shoot rare species. Etc etc. But they do have a point of sorts. For a very long time I’ve got angry about pheasant shoots, about Red Grouse being slaughtered on the ‘Inglorious 12th’, about ducks being destroyed in a hail of lead – but I’ve not really done anything about it. I certainly haven’t blogged about it much.
Why? Perhaps because pheasants are non-native, grouse shooting is unstoppable because it’s done by people in power with wealth, and wildfowling (using ducks as live target practice) is freaking unpleasant but there are species going extinct and there are only so many hours in the day…
Or maybe because the birds being shot here are not rare, while some of the ones trying to overfly Malta are?
There are still only so many hours in the day, but my thinking has shifted over the last few years. Yes, it is hugely important that gunning down a Lesser Spotted Eagle could have an impact in global population terms, but gunning down a Mallard isn’t actually really all that different. It demonstrates a mindset that says the individual bird doesn’t really matter, that the second’s thrill the hunter gets is more important than the life of the bird, that we humans assume the right to make decisions on whether millions of birds are killed in the name of ‘sport’ or not.
And the more I started thinking about it, the more the birder in me became – er, bloody irritated.
Yes, the birds slaughtered by the thugs that stain Malta’s international reputation are important, but so are the millions of pheasants released in front of the guns every year in Britain. And the shooting industry is responsible for far more things that as a birder, as a lover of all things wild and of our environment and countryside, I think I should care about. How about the Buzzards, the foxes, the stoats and weasels shot, poisoned, snared or torn apart by dogs so that more pheasants survive to be gunned down for ‘sport’? And how about the Golden Eagles that ‘disappear’ over hunting estates, the Hen harriers that mysteriously fail to breed on England’s moorland, the Goshawks that seem unable to expand out of one or two well-protected woodlands?
And it’s not just the birds. How about the tons of highly toxic lead blasted into the environment every year? The micro-management of habitats so that ‘gamebirds’ can ‘benefit’? The relentless media stories that aim to separate wildlife into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (which really means ‘can be shot’ or ‘should be shot so that we can shoot even more of the ‘can be shot’s’)? And how about the lobbying power of wealthy landowners who aim to normalise the killing of the nation’s wildlife?
Seeing the individual bird, becoming a birder rather than a ‘birdser’ again (and, yes, I made the word up, and it’s a bit twee but it makes the point), made me want to do something more than just write a few blogs and fire off a few emails. And that coincided very neatly with getting to know Lawrie Phipps (a birder and a League Trustee) and interviewing both him and Joe Duckworth (the League’s chief-exec) for podcasts.
I have to say (and the League know this, so unlike my airline job interview I’ve not slipped on-board under slightly false pretences) that I didn’t know a huge amount about the League against Cruel Sports until early last year. But then I didn’t know much about being a veggie when I first became one, and wasn’t much of a birder when I first picked up a pair of binoculars. When something fits it just fits, and rather than look back and worry about what you don’t know, look forward to what you’re going to learn.
And it’s true that I have a lot to learn, about how the League runs, what my role as a Trustee can and should be, but hopefully I have something to teach as well. I have – as my frayed looks suggest – been around a bit. I’ve thought a great deal about what I’ve seen too. About what I have and haven’t done. And what birds – what all wildlife in fact – means to me. I don’t feel the need to apologise for being ‘pro-wildlife’ any more (I did once), I don’t feel the need to justify why I think killing and cruelty is wrong. I’m happy to explain why I think these things, but I don’t need to compromise my opinions, and I’m never going to be swayed from knowing that snuffing out an animal for a moment’s ‘sporting pleasure’ is neither ‘conservation’ nor ‘the countryside way’.
I know too that killing raptors to ensure more gamebirds to kill is wrong, that chasing foxes on horseback is not ‘sport’ in any sense of the word, that badgers are being scapegoated by a government and a union that want to be seen to be doing something whether what they’re doing is right or wrong, that snares are Victorian relics and should be banned, that bullfighting is a torture not worthy of ‘cultural status’, that hares need protection from being ripped apart by dogs, and that dogs themselves shouldn’t be pitted against one another…
Like I say, when something fits.
And on top of that, the birder in me – and I’m speaking as a birder here, not as a Trustee of the League – is never going to forget that chickens and turkeys are birds too; that it’s not the point that Mallards won’t go extinct anytime soon; and that I can feel just as sad for the magnificent White-tailed Needletail that slammed into a wind turbine in Scotland a few days ago as I can for the Partridge that will be gunned down over the fields close to where I live in September.
Because for me being a birder is inspiring, exciting, and wonderful, but it’s also about walking down the beach and being the person putting starfish back in the water…
- “The League is a charity that brings together people who want to stop cruelty to animals in the name of sport. Established in 1924, we successfully use lawful investigations, campaigning and lobbying to make a difference in the UK and around the world.”
Become a Member: http://www.league.org.uk/content/305/Become-a-Member
Save Animals – Take Action: http://www.league.org.uk/content/357/Take-Action/